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Where Does Baptism Go?

I hope those of you who were not offended by my previous post on baptism will bear with me. I’m sure I’ll have offended everyone equally by the time I’m through. 🙂 Last time I suggested that both anti-sacramentalists and pedobaptists had diverged from the New Testament pattern for water-baptism. Now I’ll take aim at the sacramentalists and, to a certain extent, the Pentecostals. Baptists, don’t worry; your time is coming soon….

I don’t think any believer would dispute that baptism is part of the process of becoming a Christian. Nor do I think anyone would challenge the idea that it is only a part of the process. But where in the larger process does baptism belong? Where does baptism go?

The Conversion-Initiation Process

To answer this question, let me commend to you a little book by James D. G. Dunn titled Baptism in the Holy Spirit (I will be citing the original 1970 edition in this post). As the title suggests, Dunn’s main area of investigation is not water-baptism but Spirit-baptism, but his work has implications for all aspects of the process of becoming a Christian. Dunn surveys all of the references to believers’ reception of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament to explore how these experiences are related to other parts of the process of Christian conversion and initiation. He finds what he considers the normative pattern in Acts 2:38:

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

This text identifies three distinct (but inter-related) elements in what he describes as “conversion-initiation.” Each element is performed by a different party involved:

  1. Repentance is what the initiate does (and for Dunn, repentance and faith are understood to be two sides of the same coin).
  2. Baptism in water is what the community does.
  3. Giving the Spirit is what God does.

Dunn argues that the terminology of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” refers precisely to this initial giving of the Spirit accomplished within the context of conversion-initiation rather than to a subsequent experience to be sought later on. Furthermore, he argues that baptism in the Spirit is most crucial of the three elements:

Of the three elements the most important is the gift of the Spirit. In 2.38 it is the climax of the total event of conversion-initiation: of the two things offered—forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit—it is the positive gift which Peter emphasizes, that which first attracted the crowd, and that which is the essence of the new age and covenant (2.39). (91-92)

For Dunn, there can be no such thing as a non-Christian possessing the Spirit or of a Christian who does not possess the Spirit (95). To become a Christian is, by definition, to receive the Spirit of Christ (96).

A Threefold Cord

Furthermore, Dunn believes the ordering of the elements in this verse should be seen as normative: repentance, baptism, then the Spirit. Of course, “normative” does not mean variations on the pattern are disallowed. Dunn is quick to point out that sometimes receiving the Spirit comes after baptism (Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6) and sometimes before (Ac 10:44-48)! Nevertheless, it is clear that these three elements are consistently described in the New Testament as following each other in quick succession. They are all part of the same complex of events or experiences.

Nor can one separate the act of faith from the gift of the Spirit, which once again ties the three elements of conversion-initiation tightly together. Like George Beasley-Murray, Dunn argues for a close connection between faith and baptism based on the New Testament evidence. He cites evidence from Acts that faith/repentance and baptism are closely linked (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:18). Water-baptism, he says, is

the occasion on which the initiate called upon the Lord for mercy, and the means by which he committed himself to the one whose name was named over him. Properly administered water-baptism must have been the climax and act of faith, the expression of repentance and the vehicle of commitment. (97)

In short, Dunn would rank the relative importance of the three elements of conversion-initiation thusly:

  1. The gift of the Spirit
  2. Repentance (and faith)
  3. Baptism in water

Without re-reading the book in depth, I think this is a fair assessment of Dunn’s position. It might be, however, that he sees repentance/faith and baptism as more or less of equal importance, as the one presupposes the other in his estimation (see below).


If these three elements in fact belong with one another—if baptism goes closely alongside both faith and reception of the Holy Spirit—this has implications for faith traditions across the theological spectrum.

The sacramental approach to conversion-initiation is a natural development from the New Testament situation:

When the Spirit became less the subject of experience and more the object of faith, and direct inspiration became suspect as a result of the Montanist excesses…, it was natural that the one very tangible and public element of conversion-initiation should become more and more the focus of attention. Water-baptism could be regulated, whereas faith and the Spirit can not. (224)

Over the centuries, water-baptism came to be wholly identified with the process of initiation and sacramental doctrine became more and more mechanical, if not magical. At the same time, the gift of the Spirit became more tightly controlled and regulated by institutionalizing the experience in the sacrament of confirmation.

In reaction against this development, Protestantism shifted the emphasis away from baptism and onto preaching and personal faith, with authority shifting from the church to the Bible. This was especially true among the Anabaptists (and far less so among the magisterial Reformers in Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism). The Spirit, however, did not return to Protestantism—largely due to a general mistrust if not hatred of those same Anabaptists. Rather, “where Catholics fastened on to the objectivity of the sacraments, Protestants fastened on to the objectivity of the Bible” (225). Conversion became essentially synonymous with justification by faith alone.

Finally, Pentecostals reacted against both these extremes:

Against the mechanical sacramentalism of extreme Catholicism and the dead biblicist orthodoxy of extreme Protestantism they have shifted the focus of attention to the experience of the Spirit. (225)

Based on his exegesis, Dunn affirms that the Pentecostals were wholly justified in this shift, although sees two unfortunate side-effects:

  1. They have followed the Catholics in separating Spirit-baptism from the event of conversion-initiation and made the gift of the Spirit an experience that follows after conversion.
  2. They have followed the rest of Protestantism (or at least the free-church branches thereof) in separating faith from water-baptism, so that a person can be a “Christian” before his or her baptism, and baptism itself is little more than a confession of a past commitment. According to Dunn, “This may well accord with present Baptist practice, but it is not the NT pattern” (227).

By asserting the centrality of Spirit-baptism, Dunn believes he has found a way to give water-baptism is proper New Testament role: “as the expression of the faith to which God gives the Spirit” (227). Finally, he sums up his position with the following epigram (228):

Faith demands baptism as its expression;
Baptism demands faith for its validity.
The gift of the Spirit presupposes faith as its condition;
Faith is shown to be genuine only by the gift of the Spirit.

In these first two posts, I’ve laid out something of a Baptist vision for the meaning and place of water-baptism. Next, I’ll try to summarize some of the key values Baptists hope to enact by upholding this vision. (You might also want to take a look at this addendum to the post you’re reading.)

technorati tags: conversion, baptism, faith, holy spirit, sacrament



  1. Anabaptists did emphasize the Spirit and believers baptism and faith equally in the first generation. Because of the excesses of some “Spiritualists” (especially violent ones at Muenster), later generations did make a similar move to Calvinists in almost fusing the Spirit and Word–albeit with a very different hermeneutic from the Calvinists.
    Later “pietist” or “spiritual” or “charismatic” emphases among Anabaptists (leading to the creation of such denominations as the Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren Church, etc.) were, in part, attempts to break from Mennonite and Amish legalisms and recapture the 3-fold equality of faith, Spirit, and baptism of the first Anabaptists. Today, there are strong conversations between Mennonites and Pentecostals that I think will prove very helpful.
    I wish the same kinds of conversations were happening among Baptists.

    I find it interesting that you and I went to Southern at the same time and that both Dunn and Beasley-Murray influenced us both so much–but without either of us discussing it with each other. This makes me wonder how many others there at that time came under the same influences. I didn’t notice profs. pushing these texts, but I still wonder.


  2. D. P. says:

    Thanks for filling in some of the historical gaps, Michael.

    Interesting observation re: SBTS. GRB-M was a visiting prof. while I was in the doctoral program and he just impressed me not only with his scholarship but his christlike manner. Dunn did a lecture series while we were in the MDiv program where he discussed the major points of the book I referred to above. I bought a copy of his “Jesus and the Spirit” and asked him to sign it for me, and he was one of the early influences in my choosing a dissertation topic. So for me, it was all personal influence rather than “institutional.”


  3. PS says:

    I’m trying to follow these arguments…. and from my point of view, it makes the whole thing so complicated. If God does the saving through grace, then all this is moot.

    However, a question after reading the epigram at the end of your piece:

    Can we believe without the Spirit (or perhaps without the Spirit’s help?) Is faith something that a person summons up from within his/herself or something given, as in “faith is a gift of God?”

    The epigram makes more sense to me if it would be a picture like one of those optical illusions where there is a square with no beginning or end.


  4. I had Beasely-Murray for 2 summer J-terms: Jesus and the Kingdom and Baptism in the New Testament. I had been introduced to Dunn’s work on the unity and diversity of the NT in college and I was behind you in that line. I had him sign two books, including one of the ones you named. So, I had those personal connections, too, but I seem to remember both names being in frequent discussion at SBTS without any kind of overt pushing.

    I remember being surprised when Dunn said he was a Methodist because I found his argument in Baptism in the Holy Spirit to be one that logically leads to believers’ baptism. In fact, I saw it as a “Baptist with Pentecostal leanings” argument–a position which has continued to characterize yours truly.


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